David C. Pellegrin
Published by The Pellegrin Firm July 20, 2020
Louisiana appellate courts are generally less deferential to lower courts than appellate courts in other states on issues of fact-finding and damages. However, if a jury’s award is based on reasonable grounds, Louisiana appellate courts will generally let it stand. For example, in a decision from May 9, 2019, the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal based in Baton Rouge ruled in a car accident plaintiff’s appeal of a jury’s damage award. The jury found for the plaintiff that the defendant who rear-ended him was at fault. However, the plaintiff alleged the damage award was abusively low.
First, the plaintiff alleged that the trial court erred in charging the jury on force-of-impact. The jury was instructed that while the force of a collision may be considered in determining whether a person was injured by an accident and the extent of the injuries sustained, it should not be the only factor. The slight force of impact does not preclude an award of damages; however, it may be considered in determining causation. The plaintiff objected to this instruction stating that no evidence was presented to establish that the accident had minimal impact. The trial court overruled the objection. Trial courts are given broad discretion in formulating jury instructions, and a trial should not be reversed on a jury instruction so long as the charge correctly states the substance of the law.
So, did the jury instruction mislead the jury to the extent that it was prevented from dispensing justice? Though no testimony was given showing “minimal impact,” there was enough evidence and photography to suggest the slight force of impact. The jury granted a directed verdict in favor of the plaintiff as to causation, and the force-of-impact evidence could be relevant to the jury’s credibility determinations in determining awards for damages. The appellate court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in making the instruction, concluding that the assignment of error lacked merit.
The remainder of the appeal concerns the damage awards. In reviewing the jury’s factual findings, the issue to be resolved by the appellate court is not whether the trier of fact was right or wrong, but whether the factfinder’s conclusion was a reasonable one. Stobart v. State, Department of Transportation and Development, 617 So.2d 880, 882 (La. 1993). The reasoning for the jury’s decision came from two sources: expert testimony from the defense and the plaintiff herself. The plaintiff had a pre-existing degenerative back condition which the defense’s expert testified could have been aggravated by the accident, but he also stated that most aggravations should end after six-nine months and not seven-and-a-half years as the plaintiff alleged. He also testified that she might have experienced this continual back pain regardless of ever having been in an accident. In terms of the plaintiff herself, the jury found that she lacked credibility. Her testimony about her pain and her reactions to the accident conflicted with testimony from other witnesses, her doctors, and her own husband. The jury therefore had a reason for giving low awards for general damages and past and future medicals. The appellate court stated that although it may have weighed the evidence and awarded damages differently, the jury came to a reasonable conclusion and thus did not abuse its discretion in reaching it verdict. The case is Jones v. Bravata, 2018-0837 (La.App. 1 Cir 5/9/19); 280 So. 3d 226.